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Monday, August 06, 2012

Eisler, Hayes and social distance

by digby

There's a lot of chit-chat about this post by Barry Eisler in which he discusses an exchange between Glenn Greenwald and Chris Hayes:

[T}he most thought-provoking part of the interview came at the end, when Greenwald asked Hayes about Hayes's assertion that even the most well-intentioned people will inevitably be corrupted -- what Hayes calls "cognitive capture" -- by entry into the American elite (aka the One Percent, aka the American Oligarchy). Given that Hayes, who started out writing for The Nation, is now an establishment TV personality and employee of one of the world’s largest media corporations (Hayes hosts his own talk show, Up with Chris Hayes, on MSNBC), Greenwald wanted to know what steps Hayes is taking to prevent his own cognitive capture.

As someone who deals extensively with questions of subornment in fiction (and who once had some training on the subject, courtesy of Uncle Sam), I found the question itself extremely interesting.

It is. He claims that Hayes didn't have a good answer beyond saying that he would do his best, although later on twitter, Hayes replied to him by saying:

I've given this a *lot* of thought. Biggest single element is constant reaffirming willingness to walk away.

Eisler's entire post is very thought provoking and probably correct, but he gets one thing wrong in the beginning, in my opinion, as relates to Hayes. He writes:

For me, Hayes's first big test came after he said on his show that he was "uncomfortable" calling American war dead "heroes," and I wish Greenwald had asked about this specifically, as it was directly relevant to Greenwald's more general question. There was a predictable Twitter and blogosphere outcry in response to Hayes comments, and Hayes quickly apologized. I thought the apology was unfortunate. Of course my heart goes out to every family that's ever lost a loved one in combat. But whether it follows from this that every American soldier who dies in combat is automatically a hero is, at a minimum, not a topic that in a democracy should be taboo.

I don't know the extent to which Hayes's apology was heartfelt (personally, I find it incomprehensible). But my guess is that he felt he had to make it -- perhaps because of pressure from corporate higher-ups; perhaps because he felt that his show wouldn't be properly heeded if he became a poster boy for rightist attacks.

I don't have any inside information about that. But I do know, having read Hayes' book, that the apology was both sincere and comprehensible and I believe he made it out of intellectual integrity, not because of craven professional concerns.

Here is what he wrote:

On Sunday, in discussing the uses of the word "hero" to describe those members of the armed forces who have given their lives, I don't think I lived up to the standards of rigor, respect and empathy for those affected by the issues we discuss that I've set for myself. I am deeply sorry for that.

As many have rightly pointed out, it's very easy for me, a TV host, to opine about the people who fight our wars, having never dodged a bullet or guarded a post or walked a mile in their boots. Of course, that is true of the overwhelming majority of our nation's citizens as a whole. One of the points made during Sunday's show was just how removed most Americans are from the wars we fight, how small a percentage of our population is asked to shoulder the entire burden and how easy it becomes to never read the names of those who are wounded and fight and die, to not ask questions about the direction of our strategy in Afghanistan, and to assuage our own collective guilt about this disconnect with a pro-forma ritual that we observe briefly before returning to our barbecues.

But in seeking to discuss the civilian-military divide and the social distance between those who fight and those who don't, I ended up reinforcing it, conforming to a stereotype of a removed pundit whose views are not anchored in the very real and very wrenching experience of this long decade of war. And for that I am truly sorry.

This "social distance" concept is a central thesis of his book, and it makes perfect sense that, upon reflection, he would see his comments as a validation of the very thing he condemns so strongly. And that's exactly what he says in that apology. I don't know know if NBC wanted him to write one or what kind of pressure they brought to bear. But it was clear to me from the specific wording that Hayes was very carefully addressing that aspect of the flap and no other.

I wrote about this at the time for Mother Jones, and in the post I questioned the concept of social distance in this instance. I think Hayes is generally right about it (my own Villager trope is related to this idea) but I can also see the downside ---- what I would call the "tyranny of personal experience" which says that only people who have direct knowledge of something can have an opinion. But regardless of my own murky intellectual evolution on this subject, I do not doubt that Hayes acutely feels the pressure to not be "a Villager", and that cuts in a bunch of different directions, not the least of which is a need to be sensitive to the fact that he is not, as all the other wealthy TV pundits would have us believe they are, some regular Joe who has a direct pipeline to "Real Americans."

I don't doubt that someone in his position wrestles constantly with the temptations that comes with celebrity, money and power. Any human being would. And I have no way of knowing what kinds of compromises, if any, he's made and will make now that he's in that position. (Eisler's piece spells out the possible pitfalls in chilling detail.) But in my view it's not correct to attribute that apology over the "heroes" comment to one of them. And at the very least, since there is a perfectly reasonable and obvious explanation as to why he would have done it out of personal and intellectual integrity, I think it's only fair to grant him the benefit of the doubt.

It's not as if he's Jonathan Karl ...

Update: Josh Holland asked Hayes about it in this interview and Hayes answers the charge directly.